Little Stimulus Boost Expected For County Schools

BERLIN – School systems across Maryland are expected to get a fiscal shot in the arm with Governor Martin O’Malley’s announcement late last week of $720 million in federal stimulus package funding for public education in the state, but just how much trickles down to Worcester County remains uncertain.

Last Friday, O’Malley announced an investment of $720 million in funding for Maryland’s public education system from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus package, approved last week by the U.S. Congress. Under the governor’s plan for the federal stimulus funds, “every school district in Maryland will be made whole,” but it remains to be seen if the injection of the federal funding stream will assist Worcester County Public Schools, whose leaders are currently scrambling to come up with an roughly $1.6 million in additional cuts in their proposed fiscal year 2010 budget.

Under the governor’s plan, roughly $176 million of the additional federal funding will be directed at fully funding the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI), a formula that provides extra funding to counties where the cost of living is higher. However, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes, Worcester County will not share in that windfall because it is not eligible for any funding under the GCEI formula to begin with.

Under a somewhat perverse formula, Worcester is considered one of the wealthiest counties in the state based on the value of real estate in the county. However, Worcester is not eligible for any GCEI funding because the cost of living in the county is relatively low compared to other jurisdictions. In a sense, Worcester is considered a wealthy county because of the concentration of high-end real estate in the resort areas, but is not considered to have a high cost of living necessary to be considered for GCEI funds.

To add insult to injury, nearly 34 percent of county students live in households at or below poverty level and are eligible for free and reduced meals. The state average is just over 31 percent. Because of the statistical anomalies, Worcester County schools are not eligible for much of the federal stimulus money directed at public education in Maryland announced by O’Malley last week, according to Andes.

“The governor’s announcement last Friday provides no additional state money for Worcester County,” he said this week. “Since we don’t receive any GCEI funding, there will be no supplemental grant for Worcester County from the state. The governor’s announcement last Friday will not change our situation in Worcester County.”

However, the governor’s plan to direct federal stimulus money at public education in Maryland includes several components beyond the GCEI formula and another formula that would provide funds for the non-public placement of students, a program in which Worcester does not participate. For example, O’Malley’s plan includes provisions to restore cuts to state aid to the school systems proposed before the stimulus funding became available.

According to the governor, the plan includes the restoration of proposed reductions in supplemental grants to local school systems. The restoration of those funds will complement the nearly $400 million in direct aid that local school systems will receive from the federal government as a result of the approved stimulus package, a pool of money from which Worcester might benefit.

Much of the remaining $400 million will be directed at fully funding all of the elements of the Thornton education funding formula with a large percentage directed at Title I schools and programs related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), for which Worcester schools are eligible.

While Worcester will not be eligible for supplemental funding under the GCEI formula, Andes acknowledged the county will likely see some additional money from the trickle-down of federal stimulus money.

“We will receive some additional funding because the federal stimulus package money is targeted in two funding streams, special education, or IDEA, and Title I,” he said. “At this point in time, were targeted to receive IDEA and Title I money, but we have no idea how much we will get, when we will get it, or even how we are able to spend it.”

Andes also cautioned the anticipated federal funding is only expected to be made available for two years, which could complicate how it is expended because school officials would not want to enhance existing programs or create new ones if the funding stream is expected to dry up in two years. It’s a similar situation the school system is dealing with now with state grants for programs drying up and the local funds not in place to continue them.

“The federal stimulus money is for two years only,” he said. “Consequently, we have to be very careful in how we allocate those funds. They can’t be allocated for just anything.”

While some funding assistance is expected to reach Worcester, county school officials are not planning for it as they continue to struggle with their current budget.

“Right now, were waiting for some direction in terms of how much money we can expect and what the rules will be for spending it,” said Andes.